MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Altuve continues to elevate his level of play

Power the latest facet Astros star has added to his game

Altuve continues to elevate his level of play

HOUSTON -- Someday, we'll look back and tell people we were the lucky folks who got to watch Jose Altuve play baseball. We've been reminded of that over and over in the first weeks of a new season, as he has taken an already elite game to an entirely new level.

Altuve is leading the American League (or is tied for the league lead) in home runs (nine), doubles (14), stolen bases (10), slugging (.664), total bases (79) and OPS (1.073), heading into Saturday. He has led off six games with home runs and is leading the Majors with a 2.3 Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball Reference. The next closest AL players are Mike Trout and Manny Machado (1.8).

Cast your Esurance All-Star ballot for Altuve and other #ASGWorthy players

"That little guy at second base is some kind of player," Mariners manager Scott Servais said. "It's not a good feeling when you see him walking to the plate. You don't know how to attack him."

Maybe the mistake a lot of us made was in thinking that we'd already seen the best of the Astros' second baseman. After all, Altuve won a batting title at age 24. How do you improve on a .341 average? Over the past three seasons, he averaged 201 hits and 43 stolen bases. How much better could he get?

We may have missed the mark because we did not really grasp Altuve's burning desire to be great. Not just to be great, but to continue to get better -- to hone in on every aspect of his game and attempt to improve it.

Altuve had done that earlier in his career, when he assessed where he was at after two seasons and decided he needed to get in better shape and improve his preparation and game planning. That's when a career .285 hitter had a .341 season. He followed that one up by hitting .313 and collecting 200 hits in 2015.

Was there more? Could Altuve improve his plate discipline? Could he put himself in more hitter-friendly counts? How about elevating the ball more in certain situations and possibly hitting more home runs?

Altuve's three-hit game

"He's a good hitter who is maturing into a complete hitter," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. "This happens because his preparation -- and his talent -- are elite. He steps into the batter's box with an idea of what he's going to try [to] do."

It's the homer totals that are eye-popping. Altuve had hit double-digit home runs only one other time in his career (15 in 2015). To have nine in 30 games is a reflection of a comfort level at the plate and also his discipline with his approach.

"I try to go to home plate with a purpose, with a plan, and not get out of it," Altuve said. "I'm putting myself in good hitting counts and getting good pitches to hit. I would like to keep hitting homers, but I'm not going to go out there and try to do it. Because I feel like the moment I start trying to hit the homers, I'm going to stop hitting."

By now, lots of fans know Altuve's story. Because he's only 5-foot-6, teams were reluctant to sign him during tryout camps he attended in his native Venezuela. The Astros passed on Altuve once, then took a flyer because his skill set was impossible to overlook, regardless of size.

Altuve's leadoff home run

"I hope he makes baseball people take another look at how they decide who can play and who can't," said Tigers designated hitter Victor Martinez, a fellow Venezuelan and one of Altuve's boyhood heroes.

This is the thing baseball people -- players, scouts, coaches -- say over and over: Altuve's hands are as quick as almost any player they've ever seen. He's almost freakish in his ability to get the bat into the hitting zone. Altuve's coaches have helped him prepare and come up with a plan for each pitcher, but the bottom line is that this guy has a singular talent comparable to anyone.

"He's just a great player," Mariners catcher Chris Iannetta said. "It's really tough to go inside on him. His hands are so quick."

One of the most impressive things about these past three seasons is how much opposing players admire Altuve. They all know that he had to overcome some stereotyping because of his size and that he made it through, thanks to his unshakable resolve.

They also appreciate Altuve's humility and decency, that in all sorts of ways he has become a role model for every other player in the game. In the end, though, it's what he does between the white lines that's so captivating.

"I love watching him play," said Mariners second baseman Robinson Cano.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.